Archive for Gene Hackman

Ski Bums

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on March 21, 2015 by dcairns


After enjoying SMILE so much, I resolved to watch more Michael Ritchie movies — he seemed kind of like a benign Altman. It took me a while, but I finally ran DOWNHILL RACER (1969), a movie I remember being on TV when I was a kid. I could never get into it then, and it’s obvious why when I look at it now. It’s mostly non-verbal; it doesn’t reinforce its visual moments with talk; the characters emerge very slowly; hardly anything is stated overtly; none of the characters is ingratiating. These aren’t narrative tactics calculated to appeal to a kid. Plus it was about sport, and I hate sport. But I now take the view that what a film is about, its surface subject, is irrelevant to its quality, so I watch war films and sports films if they seem interesting, despite my distaste for those particular forms of competitive activity.

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I also remember an interview where Bill Forsyth said that all stars have their self-imposed limitations, and the example he used was Robert Redford, who had never played an unsympathetic part. Well, I frequently find Redford unsympathetic but I realize I’m not meant to. But I would hold DOWNHILL RACER up as an example of RR playing a character mostly defined by negative qualities: he’s arrogant, anti-social, a dangerous driver, not a team player. He’s not a villain or even an anti-hero, he’s just a protagonist with few attractive qualities. The movie succeeds in fairly minimalist ways — we are minimally bothered about whether Redford’s pompous skier will take home the gold, but we’re sort of intrigued about what sort of a journey he’ll go on as a person, since there’s no shortage of pressure on him to reform his ways.

The lack of talk is really striking — much of what’s said is just chatter, especially that engaged in by sports commentators and journalists. The skiers exchange meaningless pleasantries. Redford fails to bond. It’s over an hour before anyone makes an actual speech. The honour falls to coach Gene Hackman. Via the DVD extras we learn that editor Richard A. Harris deliberately included some of Hackman’s slight line flubs, to emphasise the character’s emotion and to maintain the documentary realism achieved elsewhere by Ritchie in the ski footage.

The skiing is great — it is actually one of the sports I find less offensive. It happens amid pleasant scenery and it doesn’t make a lot of horrible noise, though the commentators do. Almost every other sport occurs in a horrible environment or is very loud, often both. Here, they’ve dispensed with the shonky rear projection which plagued such sequences in older movies (and some later ones, shamefully) and they have the kind of spectacular crashes which you often see on TV sports coverage but which rarely figure in movies, because movies can’t afford to break too many legs. Here, Ritchie filmed the actual races, and whenever there was a particularly painful and flamboyant tumble, they would make sure they costumed one of their actors in matching duds so they could work the sprawling athlete into their narrative.

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Ritchie understands that each skiing sequence needs to be different (as each fight is subtly different in RAGING BULL) to avoid ennui. He holds back on the amazing POV shots (wide-angle lens footage taken by their lead skier, tips of his skis in shot, snow rushing past at such velocity that by the time an ordinary mortal like you or I have taken in an onrushing bump, or a snowman, or a tree, or a small child, we would have skied right through it.

Harris cuts together really snazzy montages of preparation, too, giant closeups of tiny fastenings being adjusted, and the sound design has all these tinny tink, pting, klick sounds, which, spread apart with very soft wind underneath, create a kind of abstract, low-key suspense that’s somehow more deeply worrying than the bombastic kind (Harris also cut for James Cameron up to TITANIC).

Really nice work — pure cinema, seventies style, before the seventies had actually started. I guess in that decade, things might have ended more darkly, but the WAY in which Redford achieves his inevitable victory is really neat, and pretty dark too.

The Lone Gunman

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on December 17, 2012 by dcairns

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Been meaning to look at Stanley Kramer’s THE DOMINO PRINCIPLE for at least a year — I had only seen the credit sequence, as a kid, on the little b&w portable TV in my bedroom. I probably retuned to THE VAMPIRE LOVERS or something rather than watch the rest, but the opening stuck with me.

That’s some sequence! The great Wayne Fitzgerald did the credits themselves, and possibly the photomontage pre-creds too. I like the super-serious VO (Why is he English?) and the fact that his paranoid rant is sometimes a bit nonsensical or awkward.

Domino from David Cairns on Vimeo.

The movie is rather fine — it just missed being included in the Late Movies Blogathon but it’s actually an exemplary case study in late career blossoming. Rather than being time-warped (which is a quality I sometimes enjoy in older filmmakers’ work) it’s very of its moment, featuring a post-JFK shadowy conspiracy that attains almost supernatural levels of omnipotence. “Let me put it this way: if THEY decided to kill both of us, right here on this bus in front of everybody, it wouldn’t be on the news tonight.”

The film moves gracefully, taking full use of 70s cinema’s expressive range, but never straining for trendiness. Kramer simply seems to have effortlessly moved with the times. His helicopter shots and zooms are fresh and inventive rather than evincing the desperation or the default-mode filmmaking one often finds in 70s genre stuff.

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Gene Hackman anchors it with his big potato face, and there’s a nice grotty support from Mickey Rooney (why does Hackman tolerate the guy’s presence?), and some vintage sneering from Richard Widmark. And there’s Eli Wallach and young Edward Albert as co-conspirators. Candice Bergen has a rather nothing role: one keeps waiting for her character to become more active: she doesn’t, and the love story doesn’t carry the wait it ought to. My favourite stuff was the crisp unfolding of the prison sequences at the start, where the plot is at its most mysterious and the characters at their least sympathetic.

Thing I Read Off The Screen in The French Connection

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , on June 27, 2012 by dcairns

SHOE SERVICE for flatfeet.

In a creative solution to a scheduling issue, William Friedkin appeared at Filmhouse to talk about his career the day BEFORE Edinburgh International Film Festival launched with his new movie KILLER JOE. This year the Festival has soft edges — it starts before it starts, and it goes on after it finishes, via the La Cava retrospective which runs on into July. Six films in the fest, and six after.

Plot: Fernando Rey basically smuggles into the states a Lincoln Continental made of heroin. When I’m as rich as Fernando Rey I will drive a Sherman Tank made of marzipan.

Counter-plot: a friend says she first saw the film while slightly stoned (ironically, perhaps) and it seemed to consist purely of random men following each other about. Which is what it seemed like to me when I saw it as a kid. Theory: being a kid = being stoned all the time.

Sub-plot: today the film seems incredibly tight, linear and pretty logical, apart from the car chase. This has been cleverly stapled into the surrounding narrative (which is fact-based, unlike the El-train pursuit) but you can still see the staples.

THE FRENCH CONNECTION is a shot-on-the-streets kind of thing, which means that reality is constantly commenting on the action. My eye goes to signs and seeks meaning. Rather than a director’s commentary, the film features a running commentary by Brooklyn itself.

IMAGINATIVE FRAMING reads one sign, moments before Friedkin shoots Fernando Ray reflected in two mirrors. Also, DO NOT PARK, one of countless state injunctions, the ten thousand commandments of urban living, which poke their heads into the film like pop-up ads.

The Siamese Connection! (can you read the sign, lower right?) I dunno what DORAL, or is it BORAL PARKING is all about.

Friedkin talked about how all actors are different and require different approaches — some may need “the utmost gentleness,” some require ferocity. Somehow, all of his stories seem to involve the ferocious approach. Gene Hackman had trouble finding his character’s aggression, so Friedkin provoked him into a state of fury for the entire shoot. I felt sorry for the actor playing the hood that Popeye Doyle slaps around — fifty takes, because Friedkin wasn’t satisfied by his star’s level of viciousness.

Given that Friedkin slapped a Catholic priest when making THE EXORCIST, and a death row inmate while making THE PEOPLE VS PAUL CRUMP, I have to fight the suspicion that Friedkin became a filmmaker in order to slap people.

EYVAN PERFUMES — AIRBORNE

Fiona asked if W.F. was influenced by Henri-Georges Clouzot’s techniques of working with actors. He said he wasn’t, but he immediately knew what she meant. “I’ve heard he was tough on actors, but I don’t have any evidence of that.” We do!

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Friedkin is a practiced, glib and funny talker, so the session flew past. At 76 he’s still full of beans, and probably piss and vinegar too, but he was charm itself in Edinburgh. He talked about the recalled Blu-ray of FRENCH CONNECTION and how something went wrong in the one part of the process he didn’t check… hard to believe that a control freak like Friedkin could make such a slip. Some suspect that he radically revised the look of the film, then changed his mind when the response was bad. Certainly he should have involved cinematographer Owen Roizman in the process. But the movie looked great on the big screen, now that the extreme revision of the original look has been adjusted to give a more authentic 1970s appearance.

SQUIBBS MINERAL OIL

The climax of the film takes place in a blasted landscape where no text survives… Friedkin was vociferous in his denunciation of modern comic book and video game inspired movies, but the pealing paint and crumbling masonry of THE FRENCH CONNECTION’s last sequence feel like something video games are now trying to achieve — that pervasive sense of decay. They haven’t quite gotten there yet.

The final onscreen writing in the film is the summary of what happened to the characters afterwards. The cops are punished and the guilty get off. The film may be inspired by a true story, but it hasn’t explicitly said so yet, so this is a left-field move in a film full of narrative surprises. Friedkin’s best dramas move like documentaries and his documentaries move like dramas (although there’s another strand to his work which is unashamedly theatrical, from THE BIRTHDAY PARTY to KILLER JOE). This end note, which affects a purely factual, neutral tone, actually tips the film’s hand somewhat. While casually showing the cops’ racism and obnoxious qualities, the movie has successfully balanced between a cool, telling-it-like-it-is distance and a more involved, propulsive story where we root for the goodies against the baddies. No political view on the “war on drugs” is offered. But the ending takes us into conservative values, and the DIRTY HARRY sense of alarm that criminals sometimes have lawyers who sometimes get them off. But, since this is a Hollywood movie, we’re still free to look at it another way — all this effort to arrest traffickers and seize drug hauls is a futile waste. Friedkin’s misanthropic nihilism is happy to be taken either way.

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